In September 2021 the ADF released a doctrinal document on Military Ethics. It provided an introduction to ethical theories that underpin the ADF’s approach to ethics, as well as laying out that approach. Sometimes theory can seem tiresome and pointless, but if we want our military to have an intellectual edge, it’s worth thinking about why we approach ethics in the way that we do. In this article I want to point to one further ethical theory that could enhance the way we think about military ethics.

The Military Ethics document describes three ethical theories that inform ADF ethics, and two ethical theories that are out of alignment with the ADF’s approach. The three that inform ADF ethics are Natural Law Theory, Duty Ethics (sometimes called Deontology), and Virtue Ethics. The two that are out of alignment with the ADF’s approach are Consequentialism and Ethical Relativism.

The philosophical field of Ethics is thriving, with much work being done on all of these theories and more. One ethicist from the mid-twentieth century whose work is coming to new prominence is the Danish philosopher Knud Løgstrup. His key works were published in new translations by Oxford University Press in 2020, and a body of secondary literature is beginning to build around his work. In my opinion, Løgstrup’s approach is both fascinating and relevant to military ethics.

Løgstrup differentiates his approach from both Deontology and Consequentialism. He calls it ‘Ontological Ethics’. This means ethics that arises from being; specifically, ethics that arises from what it means to be human. Løgstrup argues that one of the most basic features of being human is that we are interdependent. For humans to exist, we can’t help but depend on others, extending natural trust, empathy, and compassion. Think about it: for a human to be born, to grow, to be nourished, to communicate, or to attain knowledge, there is no option but to depend trustingly on others who supply what is needed. Of course, Løgstrup is well aware that we shouldn’t always trust others, and that our faculties of empathy and compassion are often stunted; but his point is that these things express the way we are designed to ideally function and that life couldn’t proceed if we didn’t have them in some measure.

There is a similarity here to Confucian ethics. According to the Confucian philosopher Mencius, humans have certain essential ‘feelings’: commiseration, shame, modesty and approval. As an example of the fact that people have an inbuilt feeling of commiseration (like empathy), Mencius points out that if you were to see a small child about to fall into a well, your heart would leap with terror – without any effort or forethought. People have these four inbuilt feelings just as they have four limbs. But if they are not acted upon, they remain stunted. The task of ethics is to develop those feelings into virtuous actions and habits.

Similarly, Løgstrup maintains that the task of ethics is to make intentional those actions which would ideally happen naturally: we should be trustworthy in caring for and championing the needs of others.

So how might this supplement the theories that underpin the ADF’s approach to ethics? Though in different ways, Duty Ethics and Virtue Ethics arose from philosophical contexts within which it was assumed that humans were essentially individual and independent rational thinkers (Duty Ethics from Kant; Virtue Ethics from Aristotle). According to these theories, then, characteristics such as teamwork or mateship or inclusivity might well be permissible, but they are not essential. However, for Løgstrup’s Ontological Ethics, these characteristics are ethically essential because they arise quite directly from what it means to be human. Humans are fundamentally interdependent and in need of each other.

In a military context, Løgstrup’s ethics would need to be applied alongside Just War theory, according to which there is a point at which ethics demands the defence of human freedom and dignity through war. In this context, Løgstrup’s Ontological Ethics might suggest a number of applications. For one: how should we treat captives? If it is essential to our humanity that we are interdependent, then we should be very cautious about the extent to which we subject people to isolation. Another application might be the nature of our respect for adversaries: we recognise that, being human like us, those adversaries who adopt rigorous practices of interdependence will be more formidable than those whose structures prevent them from exercising trust in one another.

There might be many other applications, but here is not the place to try to be comprehensive. What I hope I’ve done here is sketch an outline of Ontological Ethics that might provoke thought about a key question: how do our ethics, values, and behaviours flow from what it means to be human?